You Are a Diplomatic Fellow, Harry

By Steve Muzik, Ph.D., Federal and State Court, LIST Medical, Social Certified

I must confess that occasionally some of us (never me, of course) have been disappointed by presenters. Sometimes they know much more than one does or vice versa…either way we have a sneaky suspicion time is a-wasting (this almost never occurs, naturally).  From time to time, however, we are fortunate enough to be able to attend professional presentations and workshops which leave indelible memories of excellence.

This time we were shown an unusual professional panorama, diplomatic interpreting. The presenter was Harry Obst, retired director of the State Department’s Office of Language Services. NOTIS/WITS/SOMI sponsored this event at the Seattle Asian Art Museum on September 18, 2004. Approximately 100 persons attended, mostly court interpreters. Harry told us stories. He has interpreted for seven presidents and a myriad of lesser lights.

The stories all were funny (Harry is a virtual double for Victor Borge), and all the stories had a point. Don’t get nervous about your interpreting, you’re as smart (likely smarter) than the fellow who can’t talk without help, and his main job is just to feed you the right lines for a wonderful speech. Don’t fret about having your special chair usurped by a rival; let him/her do the work and go find something good to eat. Don’t get flustered when called upon to interpret in a field outside your expertise. Your audience is more informed than you and will easily re-cast your desperate and slightly “off” renderings (airplane air pillow = air cushion; fruit tree leaf roller insect = apple peel roller insect).  I often wondered why it was so much easier to interpret for educated discourse than for illiterate/ignorant messages. Harry suggests that less educated people have fewer alternatives available in which to cast their thoughts. If I happen not to select one they know, the interpretation fails.

The apple example leads me to the real core of Harry’s presentation: you already have the necessary fluency in target and source languages, so it’s not so much the words but the message you should focus on.  And that means you are at your best when the source language is your first language. You are going to make far fewer mistakes because you will understand the true message better.  We are detectives, hunting for clues.  Inferential reasoning is easier the more clues you pick up on. Deductive reasoning is easier the more general knowledge you already have. Right on, Harry.

Harry (I feel I can call him Harry) also gave a two hour workshop on consecutive interpreting skills.  His experience includes designing curriculum for languages he does not speak, or even understand. It is his position that all interpreting uses the same essential skills: listening, useful notes, and improved short-term memory. He also declares the world to be two dimensional: envision a chart or grid – across the top is “who (or what) does what to whom (or what)”. Down the left side is “when where how why”.  The rest of this two-dimensional world is just putting the right notes in the right box.

About 75% of all messages are of this type and as good detectives we can use strategic listening to anticipate content, taking a considerable load off. The remaining 25% are descriptive messages with the verb “to be” or “to have”, plus a few standard salutations, exclamations, and warnings. Harry is not reluctant to tell interpreters that analytical skills and general knowledge are more important than a keen eye for the bon mot. Particularly illuminating were Harry’s ideas on note taking. He is all for ideograms, or interpreting symbols. Each symbol represents a basic concept, with small variations thereto elaborating meaning. Each of us must develop our own meaningful code. Thus, for Harry, a small box is a country. That box with a circle around it is all countries, i.e., the world. A half circle just around the top of the box is…the northern hemisphere. You get the picture.

He also strongly “suggested” all word based notes (mostly abbreviations & acronyms) be taken in your first language and/or English (it uses fewer syllables than most), no matter what the source or target. Remember, the message is the key. No wonder I was struggling with my note taking. In the fast and furious exchange of cross-examination, I have from time to time genuinely puzzled myself with very strange notes in two languages, for which I am discomfited only a minute later to discover I have no clue.

Harry’s final salvo was in response to a query concerning Washington’s interpreter court ethics/code of conduct. The questioner was concerned about Harry’s freely shared and relaxed attitude of emphasis on the message rather than the precise content. Although Harry would be the first to admit he is unfamiliar with the Washington code of conduct, he courteously implied that some among us have failed to rightly understand the true meaning of the need to add or omit nothing.  He insisted (rightly) that we are better off professionally if we give due consideration to variations in grammar, syntax, etc. Plainly, his understanding of “due” was broader than his questioner’s.  Our primary responsibility thus becomes the delivery of meaning. We should insist on this in court. If pressed to give a word for word rendition, we may have to suffer fools, but (diplomatically) convey to the court that the cause of clarity and understanding has been harmed.

Harry, you were a breath of fresh air. Thanks for coming.


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